By Laura Roth
As Melessa and I finished interviewing Terry McDaniel (read that post here), she told us about Karla Smith, a spoken word artist whose day job is running a photography studio where Terry often works when styling photos. We met up with Karla at her work and loved learning about her inspiration to become an artist, as well as how she overcame some incredible challenges as a young mother and artist, and how they have influenced her now, as an older mother with an adopted two-year-old son!
Even when Karla was a kid growing up on the south side of Chicago, she was always writing poetry. It was her way to express herself without necessarily needing to be the main character. She explains, “I could be writing a parable about a flower, and in my mind I could really be talking about my own life.”
As a young mother, Karla was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 21 and needed a total hysterectomy. Her friends didn’t understand why she was so upset, since she already had two kids, “Even though I was a young mom, it broke my spirit because I felt disconnected from my peers because I couldn’t have children. I felt like I lost millions of possibilities [with the surgery].”
When Karla expressed an interest in poetry, her mentor and community advocate at the time, Lorraine Mejia, inspired her to write and perform as much as she could. As a poet and writing professor herself, Lorraine took Karla to poetry readings by published writers to encourage her. When Karla expressed her self-consciousness at not having a degree in writing, Lorraine simply replied, “Your writing is fine.” Those four simple words expanded within Karla and buoyed her up, helping her take advantage of the community resources and encouragement Lorraine has provided throughout her artistic journey.
The two have stayed in touch over the years, even as Lorraine has moved out of state. Karla recently took her eight-week online class “Your Life in Poems.” She was inspired by the writing prompts and the connections she made with other female poets around the country who were also taking the class. Everyone in the class offers suggestions and gains guidance for their own works as well.
One night, early in her artistic journey, Karla’s friend Emily took her to a Saint Paul Jazz club called the Artist Quarter. Karla fell in love with the rhythms and cadence of spoken word performance, “Once I got on stage there, it fit my groove and words. My youthful desires to rap fell away because I wasn’t in to dressing sexy, which was expected of rap artists at the time.”
She loved to go to open mic nights there and at other jazz venues and spaces where spoken word poetry was welcomed, “I started using spoken word as a form of art therapy to heal my broken spirit at that time.” She continues:
“I write a lot about my surroundings and sometimes heavy issues that poor and working class communities face like racism, classism, stereotypes, and the increase of violence within these communities. While some poets have more hip, humorous, romantic, or personal stories, I feel compassionate about sharing life story poems about work life, home life, and how to keep communities healthy.
“People are more comfortable hearing and accepting the diversity of truths now than they were fifteen years ago, and I think that the growth of social media has helped Spoken Word as an art form. It has reached from the open mics of jazz and hip hop spaces to becoming a teaching tool and resource in schools in America and around the globe.”
Karla found art to be an organic and therapeutic part of healing, and sharing her creativity has been healing to others as well, particularly young people, “Especially when you are young, there are unexpected things that can break you or transform you.” Karla explains that writing and performing is her way to help others know that they are “not alone in the journey of life.”
When she began performing, she felt like she was “freeing my pain and social anxiety from being a black woman in a white world.” She continues that when she performs Spoken Word, “I have the floor. I don’t have to give you every detail. I can just express what I want. I love it.”
By 2005, Karla was traveling extensively and performing in festivals and shows. But as her children became teenagers, Karla shifted her focus away from her career to parenting them, especially her son. She says, “I was trying to steer him in the right direction, away from the streets. And just being a black boy in America, there are a lot of things he needs to be weary of, even just going outside, with all the chaos that’s going on right now.”
Karla is passionate about the importance of having a good mother. So much so that when she was helping a young pregnant woman with a drug abuse problem, Karla told her that she would take care of the baby until the mother was ready to accept the responsibility.
Karla took the baby home from the hospital, fostered him for a year, and then adopted him when his mother decided not to be part of his life. He is now two, and she is all-in with the ups and downs of mothering a toddler. “It’s crazy! Sometimes I think I am the two-year-old!”
For the past decade, Karla’s eye has been on her children more than her art. She hasn’t had an opportunity to focus on herself as an artist, but she keeps herself connected naturally, by hosting shows and doing special events, particularly around black history month and women’s history month.
And although it took her a long time to realize it, Karla now understands that she didn’t really give up her art. “I realized I don’t need to be a superstar. Writing is a natural part of me, and I don’t think I’ve given anything up. Now I realize that someday I will be published. I have no regrets.”
Check out Karla’s Facebook page @karlamichellesmith to check out her performance schedule or to book her for events.